Auteur Darren Aronofksy’s The Black Swan, his fifth in just over a decade, is a superb psychodrama rooted in character, corralled by the specter of perfectionism and the reality of failure. Reminiscent of his debut film, PI (1998) Aronofsky turns things up a notch as all films and filmmakers should strive, to burn away the creations that came before and build upon the ashes. Clawed and scratched from the dressing room walls and mirrored practice spaces of the ballet, all is immediately not as it seems. This is a place of physical and emotional desolation, a womb of absolute dedication; a place where craft is surreptitiously burned into every muscle, every gesture – the resentment and commitment so complete as to penetrate bone and flesh as easily as any shard of glass or fingernail. Eyes tell the story as much as anything in an Aronofsky film, the slow sometimes-inevitable disturbance of normalcy as the realization of desire takes over the senses. We cannot help ourselves but remember, at times, our own squabbles in the playgrounds of our youth as the childishness of the ballerinas’ surface and adolescent confrontations verge on maturity and gnaw with competitiveness. However, the brutality that is often lost in playgrounds and behind curtains is shorn open here, gathered in mirrors and psychosis; everyone is vying for the top, even mothers and directors, but there is a price for all that desire and the cost here is frequently of the mind, the body and the soul.
The story begins with a dance company at the New York Lincoln Center as the current, aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) is retired by the artistic director (Vincent Cassel) and sets his sights on young, virginal Nina (Natalie Portman) to replace her. Tension is flammable and deservedly so as Nina, sheltered as much as directed by her mother (Barbara Hershey) a former ballerina obsessed with former glory, struggles to mature in order to capture the essence of the role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Yet her perseverance and sacrifice lands the role, though scrutinized immediately by Cassel’s overbearing direction. He is quick to point out the opposing sensibilities of the role, innocence for the White Swan and a deeper, more fully realized sense of sexuality and sensuality for the Black Swan. What ensues is a battle that blurs the lines between reality and paranoia, between the shattering walls of Nina’s sexual awakening and the overt physical guidance of the artistic director, her mother, and another young dancer (Mila Kunis) who are all willing to lose everything for the hope of gaining the intangible and fleeting object of their dreams.
The Black Swan is a brooding and emotionally exhausted wasteland where age and beauty compete with perfection and the inescapable reality where failure and success remain feuding Sisyphean companions. Aronofsky is as confident as he is comfortable with this landscape, his previous films are careful periscopes plumbing the crumbles of characters consumed by desires and often sidetracked by the means they employ to achieve them. There is no denying Aronofsky’s technique though not everyone will be prepared for the journey as has come to be his hallmark: the descent that like his previous work, is a one-way roller coaster picking up speed, plummeting toward an inevitable collision with the ground. It is common to feel broken after an Aronofsky film, battered and bruised like his characters, shakily rising, if you are lucky, to reflect on the experience as you leave the theater. Yet the experience follows you, you carry it with you deep down in your gut where things will settle for a little while like knots labeled however irrational, however close to the surface. The Black Swan is more of an experience than a film, an event where you participate and take something more away when you leave.
Vincent Cassel is the quintessential artistic director, Thomas Leroy. His charm can only truly be equaled by his ability to engage and confront, to be gentle and brutal without as much as a second between them. Natalie Portman breathes the role of Nina, slowly marrying naiveté and carnalism as two sides of a malleable and over-zealous young girl made transparent so that the result is tantalizing and unquenchable. There will be no questioning Portman’s vivere (living) in this character and in so doing has all but erased from memory her earlier stumblings in those space movies. Portman astounds with her performance as much as her sacrifices, the tremendous preparation (10 months I have read) and poise to play the role of Prima Ballerina Assoluta is amazing and should serve her well during the awards season – and rightfully so. Aronofsky’s aesthetic is that of a painter with grace and specificity, the tooling of a master artisan who embraces the language of cinema like few other American filmmakers working these days.